In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai made an extraordinary discovery in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He spotted that a book containing the records of the First Church Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 had been made out of reused parchment. The earlier writing on each sheet had been erased (washing with milk and oat-bran was the common method), and the minutes of the Church Council copied on top. As often in reused documents of this kind, the original text had begun to show through the later writing, and was in part legible.
It turned out that the recycled sheets had come from a very mixed bag of books. There was a single page of Juvenal’s Satires, part of Pliny’s speech in praise of Trajan (the Panegyric) and some commentary on the Gospel of St John. But the prize finds, making up the largest part of the book, were faintly legible copies of the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, one of the leading scholars and orators of the second century ad, and tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180. The majority of the letters in the palimpsest were between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius himself, both before and after he had ascended to the throne. Unlike the passages from Juvenal and Pliny, these were entirely new discoveries.
By an almost suspicious coincidence, when Mai moved to the Vatican Library a few years later, he found another volume of the same proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon – with more of Fronto’s correspondence detectable under the later text. Altogether, these palimpsests had preserved more than 200 letters – some 80 of them written by Marcus Aurelius. Not only did this count as the third great collection of private letters to have survived from classical antiquity, after those of Cicero and Pliny, it also promised insights into the private world of one of the most renowned Roman rulers: the philosopher-emperor and author of the philosophical Meditations; persecutor of Christians; conqueror of the Germans (in campaigns immortalised on his column in Rome); and father of the monstrous emperor Commodus. For many thinkers of the 19th century – from Darwin to Nietzsche – Marcus was an intellectual hero. Even Bill Clinton claimed (according to Frank McLynn in his new biography) ‘to have read and reread’ the Meditations during his presidency. For most people now, Marcus Aurelius is remembered as the elderly emperor smothered by young Commodus on campaign on the German frontier at the start of the movie Gladiator.
The rest of the story of the discovery of these letters is less heroic. The text proved almost impossible to read in many places – a problem made worse by Mai’s interventions. Sharp-eyed maybe, but no scientist, Mai applied chemicals to the Ambrosian parchment in order to make the underlying text easier to decipher. In fact, the effect was almost completely to obliterate it. But even what was legible hardly matched up to expectations. For a start, whoever had collected the letters (surely not Fronto himself) had paid little attention to chronology, so that the exact, or even relative, dates of many were hard to fathom. But, more to the point, most 19th-century scholars had expected more elevated subject matter in these letters between the prince (later emperor) and his distinguished tutor in rhetoric. When Fronto wasn’t indulging in scholastic disputes about rhetorical theory, or the meaning and usage of obscure Latin words (what was the most appropriate term for ‘removing a stain’, maculam eluere, abluere or elavere?), he was complaining about his physical ailments: ‘I have been seized with a dreadful pain in my neck, but my foot is better’, ‘I’m fine except that I can hardly walk because of a pain in the toes of my left foot’, ‘I’ve been seized with a terrible pain in the groin – all the pain from my back and pelvis has concentrated there’, and so on, and on.
But even more disconcerting were the open expressions of love, longing and desire found throughout the letters. ‘I love the gods who care for you, I love life because of you, I love letters with you . . . I gorge myself on love for you,’ as Fronto signed off one letter to his pupil. Or, as Marcus put it, at the end of what is probably one of the earliest letters in the collection, written when he was about 18, ‘Farewell, breath of my life. Should I not burn with love for you when you have written to me as you have. What am I to do? I can’t stop. Last year, at the very same time and the very same place, I found that I was burning with longing for my mother. This year the longing is set alight by you.’ It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that Amy Richlin recently argued – in Marcus Aurelius in Love (2006) – that, whether or not they were physical lovers, there was a marked erotic dimension in the relationship between tutor and imperial pupil. Not something that Mai had been expecting, or hoping, to find when he came upon the precious correspondence.
McLynn will have none of this. In fact, in his account of Marcus’ life, Fronto is a tedious hypochondriac, whose malign influence his pupil was eager to escape – and indeed already had escaped by the mid-140s, when he was in his early twenties, more than 15 years before he became emperor. Perhaps, he writes, ‘Marcus had learned all he needed from Fronto; perhaps he had begun to tire of the older man’s pedantic ways; and, probably most of all, he was by now bored with rhetoric and wanted to switch full time to philosophy.’ On this view, many of the later letters in the collection are nothing more than attempts by Fronto to wheedle his way back into Marcus’ affections. Sometimes this is by fawning: in one letter, for example, he claims that his relationship with Marcus was more important to him than holding the consulship, and proceeds to compare their friendship to that of Achilles and Patroclus. Sometimes it is by playing for sympathy – hence all the complaints about ill-health. This did not cut much ice, McLynn believes, with Marcus himself, but it has worked with modern scholars, who have been convinced by this correspondence that there was a particularly close relationship between Fronto and his pupil.
What, then, of the erotic language of the letters? McLynn sees no need to suppose anything directly sexual here at all. This is merely the idiom of the second century, reflecting a world unlike our own (he claims), in which it was possible for two men to ‘express love without sexuality’. Or – though this seems a significantly different point – ‘Marcus and Fronto used the word “love” in a ludic way . . . it was a kind of elaborate charade or game, in its way part of the very rhetorical hyperbole that Fronto was supposed to be teaching his pupil.’
It is, of course, impossible now – as it no doubt always was – to know what, if anything, went on between Fronto and Marcus when the lights were out. McLynn is right to say that we cannot move directly from a loving linguistic idiom to sexual practice (the same is true when we try to decode the sentimentality of 19th-century women’s letters). And the fact, as we have seen, that Marcus compares his longing for Fronto to his longing for his mother does not instantly suggest sexual desire. That said, McLynn consistently plays down the aggressively eroticised tone of the correspondence, as well as the implications of Fronto’s comparing of his own relationship with his pupil to that of Achilles with Patroclus. Long before the second century, this Homeric pair had become a well recognised symbol for male homoeroticism.
The problem with McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius is not just how he chooses to tell the story of Fronto and Marcus, which is only one element in his vast study of the reign. Apart from the many digressions that help him fill these pages (a whole chapter on the reign of Commodus, an eight-page summary of Rome’s relations with Parthia from the first century BC, and another 15 on the Germans) he has some big claims to make about Marcus Aurelius’ place in the wider history of the Roman Empire. Like many others, Gibbon among them, McLynn has considerable admiration for the moral stature and personal integrity of the emperor himself. Yet, for all those virtues, he sees the reign as the beginning of the end of the glory days of Roman imperial power – thanks to a combination of the poisoned legacy of the paranoid emperor Hadrian, the ambivalent political and military successes of Marcus himself, and a devastating plague, which may on McLynn’s generous estimates have wiped out up to 18 million people across the Roman world, including the emperor himself (despite the Gladiator version of his death). He was in other words a decent, thoughtful man ‘caught up in the whirlwind of history’ – the Jan Christian Smuts of his generation, as one, rather forced, comparison in McLynn’s final chapter presents him.
There may be something in this (though there are rather too many ‘whirlwinds of history’ rushing through this book for my taste). But the real problem is that, as in his discussion of Fronto and Marcus, McLynn is throughout reluctant to share with his readers the curious fragility of the evidence on which his own version of Marcus Aurelius’ life and achievements is based. So, unlike Richlin, he chooses not to explain the strange history of the Fronto letters or to remark on the gaps in the correspondence and the reasons that may lie behind them. When he uses the letters to reconstruct the major events of the reign, or even just the shifting fortunes of Marcus and Fronto themselves, he does not stop to point out that the dates of many of them are either unknown or disputed – that you cannot, for very obvious reasons, simply string them together into a narrative.
It is surely the job of all biographers to explain what lies behind their own reconstruction of their subject’s life: biography is always as much about how we know as what. But in the case of ancient biography, and those curious pockets of ‘evidence’ through which we hope occasionally to glimpse the lives of the Greeks and Romans, it is even more important to make clear the processes by which the ancient life story has been reconstructed. This is what McLynn, in his apparently confident account, repeatedly fails to do.
The truth is that the life of Marcus is, on the face of it, better documented than that of most other Roman emperors, never mind the rest of the ordinary Roman population, who are almost entirely lost to us. Yet most of that documentation is, in its own way, as puzzling and difficult to interpret as the correspondence with Fronto. There is, to be sure, an ancient biography on which to draw – a short life story of Marcus in the series known as the Historia Augusta. This is a compilation of biographies of Roman emperors, and a few also-rans and usurpers, from the early second-century Hadrian (who first fingered Marcus as a potential successor to the throne, despite his having only remote links by birth to the ruling dynasty) to some short-lived rulers of the 280s. It purports to be written by a team of six historians at the very end of the third century, though it is now acknowledged to be the work of just one man writing at least a century later. The reason for this pretence remains a mystery, but there is no doubt that most of the biographies it contains have very little claim to strict historical accuracy, even if they vividly reflect some of the obsessions of Roman imperial culture – from the conventions of elite dining to the murderous tendencies of the nastier autocrats. This is the source, for example, of the anecdote about that extraordinary third-century emperor Elagabalus, who is supposed to have killed his dinner-guests with kindness – literally. He let so many rose petals fall from the ceiling of his imperial dining-room that his guests were suffocated.
The earlier biographies in this series are, admittedly, rather less flamboyant than the later ones. Marcus Aurelius is painted as a noble philosopher without any of the extreme vices of his successors. Yet for McLynn to pass over his own reliance on this source with only the most gentle of health warnings (‘I have found it reliable enough for the reign of Marcus Aurelius’ – how does he know?) is in effect to shrug off responsibility for his own narrative.
But at the very centre of the modern image of Marcus Aurelius are his Meditations – the personal, disconnected, philosophical musings that have been largely responsible for his reputation as a philosopher-emperor, conquering the Germans (or persecuting the Christians) by day, while puzzling over ethical conundrums by night and consigning his thoughts to paper and posterity. It is from this source that McLynn has constructed his own view of Marcus’ character as slightly priggish and internally conflicted – while at the same time a man of duty and ‘supreme integrity’. But by careful selection (for no one except an academic philosopher could possibly read the original from start to finish) the Meditations have also launched Marcus Aurelius into wider modern fame, as the bestselling father of self-help guides, popular psychology and ‘spiritual teaching’. The secret of this success is not simply the folk wisdom that generous translation can construct out of Marcus’ thorny Greek, which he chose over his native Latin for writing these philosophical thoughts. ‘Not becoming like your enemy is the best revenge,’ for example, is a decidedly more memorable version of the original: ‘The noblest form of retribution is not to become an imitation.’ (Not only more obscure than its modern version, this is probably a reference to a passage of Plato, which argues the reverse – an academic allusion about as far from ‘folk wisdom’ as you could get.) But part of the contemporary appeal also lies in the feeling that the Meditations offer us a rare glimpse into the personal dilemmas of the man in charge of the Roman Empire. Here we see straight through to the mental processes of the man at the very top of the Roman world. Hence their appeal to the likes of Clinton. And hence the propaganda value in claiming to be reading them: I too am struggling, so the message runs, with the ethics of world leadership.
Again, it is more complicated. We now read Marcus’ Meditations as a coherent work organised in 12 separate books, further subdivided into separate sections, under an overall title. All these features are modern, and combine to give us the impression that we are dealing with a private introspective work of literature, somewhere on the spectrum between Augustine’s Confessions, the theological theorising of Pascal’s Pensées and an 18th-century commonplace book. In fact, we have no information on the origin and purpose of the work at all. We do not know what it was originally called (or if, indeed, it was ever intended by its author to be the kind of thing that would have a title). We do not know when or in what circumstances it was written. Some references in the text seem to imply an elderly author and the idea has grown up that some of it at least was written on the long nights of the German campaign. (This idea is supported by the subtitles of two of the books, ‘Written among the Quadi on the River Gran’, ‘Written in Carnuntum’ – though these are more likely to be the bright idea of some medieval copyist than geographic references inserted by Marcus himself.) We have no clue who chose to put it into public circulation, or why. The first reference we have to it is from the 360s, when it appears to be going under the name Admonitions.
If a text like this were to be discovered today in the sands of Egypt, not tied to the name of an emperor, we would almost certainly interpret it as a set of fairly routine philosophical exercises – the kind of thing that a philosophically trained member of the Roman elite would compose to keep himself in good intellectual shape. Although we often choose to read it in a narrowly personal way, much of the material draws on a fairly standard repertoire of ancient philosophical theory. So for example, ‘On death: either dispersal, if we are composed of atoms; or if we are a living unity, either extinction or a change of abode’ (VII, 32). Even ‘A king’s lot: to do good and be damned’ (VII, 36) is not a reflection on monarchy from the coalface, but a quotation on the perils of autocracy by the philosopher Antisthenes. When McLynn chooses (as many have before him) to scour the Meditations for signs of Marcus’ inner conflicts, he might as well be looking for the evidence of psychic turmoil in the essay of a modern philosophy undergraduate.
Even more crucial is the question of typicality. The really big problem in understanding the Roman world is not the lack of evidence (there is enough to keep most scholars going for more than a lifetime), but not knowing how typical or representative that evidence might be. Hence the problem of pinning down the relationship between Fronto and Marcus. If we had more examples of letters between Romans and their tutors, we would have a better idea whether this particular correspondence looked unusual. The nearest parallel I know to such strikingly eroticised language comes from the letters between Cicero and his slave Tiro – but there have been questions about the precise nature of that relationship too.
In the case of philosophy, it’s true that Marcus was hailed by Roman writers themselves as ‘the philosopher-emperor’, as if that was an unusual combination. And this has predictably led to a modern emphasis on the mixed messages of Marcus’ reign, from his image as the relentless conqueror of the Germans to the reflective, introspective, ethical thinker (or as McLynn’s subtitle has it, ‘Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor’). But we have plenty of evidence that other Roman emperors were thoroughly philosophically trained: Hadrian, for example, or even the first emperor Augustus, who wrote his own Exhortations to Philosophy, now lost. There seems to me a fair chance that, though the Meditations is a rare survival, works like it might well have been found on the desk (and from the pen) of many a Roman ruler. What, after all, would Augustus’ Exhortations have looked like, if that had survived? And what difference would it make to how we told the story of his reign?
To put this another way: might we not get further in understanding Marcus Aurelius and his reign by not treating him as a rare hybrid? With his desire for military glory, his disastrous succession plans, his wayward wife, and his spare-time interest in philosophy, might he not actually be rather ordinary by the standard of Roman emperors?